Is this what America looks like?

Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

As a political news junkie living in the UK it has become somewhat of a morning ritual for me to scour news of the previous night’s events in the American primaries. This morning I came across the above image in a gallery posted by the Guardian newspaper (UK) depicting the events of the cancelled Donald Trump rally at the University of Illinois, Chicago (March 11, 2016). The racist, sexist and downright ignorant vitriol, wrapped in a cloak of blindly unsophisticated patriotism, has simmered barely beneath the surface of Trump’s public appearances. Having been increasingly stoked by the unapologetic ringmaster himself and given the focus of anti-Trump protestors who have (bravely or idiotically?) gone into the lion’s den to confront fascist tendencies, there has been an inevitability of a further dissent into violence. The written commentary and video footage I viewed however, did not capture the political zeitgeist so entirely as this one, arresting photograph. In its confluence of symbolic imagery, Scott Olson’s photo, cuts through to the terrifying truth of what Trump’s America looks like.

At first glance I thought this guy was simply dressed as a clown. If this was the case it would have confirmed a metaphor that has been readily used to describe many of the GOP primary candidates individually (not to mention the collective use of the ‘clown car’ to describe the entire field). The giant stars and stripes bow tie and slightly ill-fitting hat presents the required cartoonishness, but this is undercut by what I would suggest is the man’s sad, rather than angry, expression. As an archetype the clown is not only a comedic figure but a tragic one, representative of the inherent melancholia of being out of step with the world. There is also an underlying darkness or horror to the clown, the pretence of make-up and costume perhaps hiding something sinister beneath. And, of course there is an allusion to the infantilisation, not only of himself but of his audience. Presenting an invitation to regress to a childlike subjectivity, the clown is a spectacle of distraction that, at best, appeals to innocence, at worse, taps into the base instinct to laugh at the misfortune of others.

But this man is not a clown. Indeed, the cream linen suit, with the ostentatious (and aesthetically colour coordinated) blue chest pocket handkerchief, is indicative of a dandyish gentleman of American South. Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe and, most recently, Kevin Spacey’s Southern Democrat Frank Underwood in House of Cards, are all examples of this identity that sprung to mind. Indeed, the man in the image even effects a Twain-esque facial hair arrangement. The cream suit in this context is symbolic of an implicit contradiction: the performance of aesthetic sophistication, cultural values and good manners but a sense of status and entitlement that is built on the darkest aspects of American social history. And then, of course, there is the finger. If what I have described above is studium of the image (its cultural/political interpretation) then the finger is the puncture (a personal, puncturing detail which crystallises a photograph’s meaning). In an overt sense the finger is a thrust of violence and symbolic contempt for one’s enemy, but after just a little more consideration the web of signification in the image reveals a more complex meaning: this is America saying fuck you to itself.

Perhaps, along with many other Brits, I look across the pond to the spectacle of US democracy with a mixture of awe, incredulity, horror and (naive?) hope. Even by American standards of political theatre this GOP race has reached a point at which any semblance of conventional wisdom, critical rationality or even gut instinct have been rendered useless as tools of analysis. One can of course attempt to articulate the parameters of the current malaise that has brought Donald Trump to the fore: an overarching sense of anger about the political status-quo, a specific and pointed resentment of America’s first black president, increasingly entrenched economic equality, religious fundamentalism, geopolitical uncertainty aligned with a perceived waning of US power, a fervent anti-intellectualism, the ineffectiveness of corporate media in holding politicians to account (plus a host of other possibilities). The Trump phenomenon may have been forged in fires of this nexus, however, no one really knows how it happened or, for that matter, what is yet to come. Within such uncertainty sometimes an image cuts through the discourse with immense symbolic power. I for one am hoping that I don’t wake up on November 9th, turn on the news, and realise this is what America has truely become.